Week in Review

Don’t fear immigrants, attack survivor pleads

A survivor of the Christchurch terror attack has a simple message – and it’s one Shane Jones should listen to. David Williams reports

Farid Ahmed wants to make a point – he’s an immigrant.

The wheelchair-bound survivor of the Christchurch shootings has sent a message of peace, including forgiving the gunman that shot dead his wife Husna, received around the world. He’s met world leaders – US President Donald Trump in the White House’s Oval Office in July, and accepted a peace award in Abu Dhabi. Just this week he was scheduled to meet Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

But he’s not immune to events at home.

Ahmed speaks to Newsroom soon after New Zealand First’s Shane Jones’ inflammatory comments about Indians which, especially because of the proximity to the Christchurch massacre anniversary, were challenged as racist and wrong.

In his gentle way, Ahmed, who was born in Bangladesh and has lived in New Zealand for more than 30 years, says he thinks all immigrants are grateful for living in this country.

“Some people have reservations about the immigrants, and I want to put myself as an example. We don’t come to hate anyone, we come to respect you, to thank you, to admire you, and then we try to work very hard.”

The former engineer turned homeopathic consultant took all sorts of jobs after arriving in this country, starting with cleaning. “I didn’t want to waste one day,” he says. “I wanted to work, I wanted to pay tax, I wanted to be useful for this country because of my feeling of gratitude.”

His advice to “host communities” of immigrants is: “Don’t be afraid of them.

“Dare to ask them questions. Hey, what do you feel about us? Hey, why do you wear the hat? Hey, why do you wear a scarf? You will find that that way it will break the barrier and you will find that we all have good hearts. That’s what we need to do.

“Being suspicious, fearing one another, and, to some extent, hating one another, it’s not going to make our New Zealand prosperous. We need harmony.”

The solution? Peace talks, Ahmed says. It’s a theme he explores in a book about his wife, Husna’s Story, which has been published this month, with all proceeds going to St John Ambulance. (Interestingly, Ahmed was passed the publisher’s contact details from New Zealand First leader Winston Peters’ office.)

He’s happy to volunteer to hold such talks – so he can ask people why they hate him, while extolling his love for them. Condemnation isn’t the answer, he says, nor are endless changes to legislation.

Laws are needed for safety and security, he says, but “we cannot make laws for controlling our feelings”. “Sometimes legislation suppresses people but it doesn’t change their heart. We need to work human-to-human to change each other’s hearts.”

Farid Ahmed will speak at a function ‘Spirit of Harmony’ in Wellington on Saturday. Photo: David Williams

On March 15 last year, Ahmed and his wife were praying in different rooms at the Al Noor mosque, across the road from Hagley Park. When the gunfire started Ahmed thought he would die.

He remembers smiling. When he was hit by a drink driver in 1998 – which left him paralysed – doctors gave him a 7 percent chance of survival. Ahmed thought: “But you gave me 21 years. I have not complained. So today if it is meant to be that I’m going, I’m ready.”

But he managed to wheel himself outside and hide behind his car.

“I could hear every shot, and my heart was painful. I was thinking that this shot has killed another one. And another one.”

At the same time his heart was crying for the gunman. “Why are you doing it? What benefit are you going to get? What honour are you going to receive?

“Then the thought came to me: thank God. You have helped me, through faith, that I could not become like him. If I was like him I would have destroyed myself and I would have destroyed others.”

While waiting at a police cordon on Deans Avenue, down from the mosque, the police called to confirm Husna – “a blessing from God” – had been killed, shot in the back while returning to Al Noor to help him.

“I felt like the whole sky was falling over me,” Ahmed says. “I felt like the earth was shaking.”

He surrendered to God, realising he couldn’t handle the news without God’s help. A verse from the Qur’an came to him, suddenly, about the prophet Jacob: Choose to be patient, without complaint.

His “human weakness” came out, as he wondered how he was going to survive without his wife. Who would help him? Then another verse popped into Ahmed’s head, this one about the prophet Joseph – that God is his guardian, in this life and the next. That people die, God doesn’t; people become weak, God doesn’t.

“So it gave me complete control – that, hey, why am I worried? Husna is gone, my friends – so many friends – are gone, but He is still there. He’ll look after me.”

He cried from love but Ahmed says he never doubted his faith. “Rather, the faith gave me the strength.”

Husna was an inspiration, widower Farid Ahmed says. Photo: David Williams

The message from Husna’s Story is how hate makes people suffer. That hate is not the answer, love is, and to share kindness with others. “I wanted to share some love from me, from my wife, so I thought if I write a book it would give a good message of love and at the same time it would bring some money, and that money could be used for the help of sick people in my city.”

The story of his wife’s life is inspirational, he says. “She went through lots of struggles – but she was resilient, she was positive, and this is what we all want to be for our happiness and prosperity.”

Writing the book over five-and-a-half months was difficult, Ahmed says.

“I was basically sobbing. After a few hours of writing I used to have swollen eyes. I used to be very tired. But it had to be done.”

The grief made him feel “almost half dead”.

“I was moving, I was talking, I was doing things but not with the full [amount] of myself.”

Writing about Husna paid respect to her and helped bring out his grief. He thought it would also help others.

Ahmed and 16-year-old daughter Shifa have talked, shared their feelings, and become stronger – crying when they need to. His message, particularly to young people, is to share, to not keep things to themselves.

“I cry openly if necessary. I don’t think that people will judge me. Some teenagers sometimes they go through depression, sadness and they don’t like to share because they’re fearing that people will judge them.

“No, if one judges you, you’ll find two or three who won’t judge you. Don’t worry about the negative people, think about the positive and share.”

“Small to big, I think it was a test. And in that test, together we won.”

The last 12 months have been a hard journey, Ahmed says. He believes the attack was a test.

A test for the gunman – “because he had the choice to pull the trigger or not to pull the trigger”. A test for him – “whether I would be patient or I would be angry and violent”.

He widens the lens. It was a test for other Muslims. For the mosque’s neighbours. For Christchurch, the whole of New Zealand, and the Muslim world.

“Small to big, I think it was a test. And in that test, together we won.”

Ahmed says the biggest things he needed and wanted after the tragedy were prayers, love, and support – “and I got that.”

He recalls going out in public on the second day after the attack and being unable to stop crying. Not from the loss of his wife but because of the volume of flowers. His voice drops to a whisper: “I could not control. I felt I was not alone.”

Tears streak his cheeks. “I felt, still the world is good. Most people are good.”

Reassurance for Shifa, his daughter, came from her high school classmates and teachers.

“They say, you don’t worry – you lost one but we are there.” Hearing these sorts of things are important, Ahmed says, and provide an energy boost. His voice breaks as he passes on his family’s thanks for the emotional and mental support.

“And that’s why wherever I go, the world praises New Zealand because they see all these things.”

Asked about his low moments, Ahmed mentions he gets tired. “And when I’m tired I feel guilty.”

So it boils down to this. After all this inspirational man has done, and after all he has been through, and the lengths to which he has gone to promote peace in the face of hate, he feels guilty that due to his health he’s not doing enough. (Another problem, he adds, is being misunderstood by others.)

“Other than that,” he says, his copy of The Glorious Qur’an within sight on the table, “I’m so far so good.”

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